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Iceland: Seeking Adventure in Europe's Other World

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ICELAND
Sam Parker

"Get ready" my driver tells me, "because things are about to get dark."

Outside my window, the distant lights of Reykjavík flicker faintly in the purest shade of black I've ever seen. This is Iceland in the winter, a time when the sun peers wearily over the snow-encrusted land for just four hours a day. Get darker? I think, How can it?

Our truck rumbles past the outskirts of the capital, takes a sudden turn South towards the sea. Somehow the atmosphere outside thickens, the darkness like a hand tightening its grip. We bump along a road of dips and bends and looming rocks that pass coldly through the headlights, then stop.

I'd arrived in search of adventure: a taste of the wild. And when I said that to the man who picked me up at the airport and he suggested stopping by a local beauty spot, I'd agreed. Now I am following him blindly as blasts of arctic wind hit us from every direction, until we stumble around a rock and see it: the tides of the Atlantic, thrashing up and down the shore in the moonlight.

My eyes adjust. I look at my guide, seeing him properly for the first time. His eyes dart out over the waves as he gives Mother Nature a bearded grin. He hands me bottle of whiskey and I take a swing. As the beautiful intensity of it settles in my chest, it leaves behind an epiphany: I'm staring out at the edge of the world.

*

Until Viking settlers first began to arrive in AD 874, nothing much survived in Iceland except a few arctic foxes. Even now, after becoming one of the most prosperous countries in the world, only 320,000 people live on the island - making it the least populated country in Europe.

Of those 320,000, two-thirds live in and around the capital city of Reykjavík. The remaining 100,000 or so are hardy souls who tend to land both volcanically and geologically active, split down the middle by a tectonic plate called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that is slowly tearing the island in half at a rate of two centimetres a year.

The name might suggest freezing weather, but the climate is the only moderate aspect of Iceland's geography. Home to thirty active volcanoes, in March 2010 the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull forced 600 people to flee their homes and caused an almost complete halt to air travel across Europe. Almost a year later, Grímsvötn bellowed up a concoction of ash and lava that repeated the trick.

It is into this hostile landscape, conquered only by the most the vicious marauding tribe in history and survived today by just a tiny handful of their descendants, that I arrive looking for adventure. Iceland's excellent health care, pioneering welfare provisions and world-leading gender equality levels - none of it is of any interest, this time around. I am just here to see some of the most dramatic landscapes on earth.

iceland

*

The next morning I'm sat on a snow mobile on top of Eyjafjallajökull, while a man evaluates my clothing with a frown. From the blackness of the previous night, now all is white - vast plains sleeping under swirls of perfect snow, the earth unfurled to a distant horizon where it meets a sky the colour of weak coffee.

"You'll need a second pair, or your hands will freeze off" my instructor says, handing me a pair of what look like oven gloves. He jumps on his bike and whizzes off with a small hand gesture that means 'follows me'.

Through the tiny gap in my visa, tendrils of wind lock my face into a grimace. Struggling to keep pace with the man in front I take a dipping corner at full speed and lose control. The back end swings out and I feel the metal between my legs begin to tip. I fall into snow deep enough to surround me like a coffin as the bike lands slowly on top of me. I stare up at the sky, feeling snow drift onto my face, until after a few moments, the weight of the bike lifts and a hand touches my shoulder.

*

jwa

Back at the hotel, a Scotsman is teaching us about whisky. On the table in front of him are several bottles of Johnnie Walker scotch, from the standard black and red stuff to a new concoction called 'Double Black' he promises us will be the most intensely flavoured alcohol we will ever taste.

Glass after glass is passed around as the man chats amiably about depth and texture and how hints of cigar mingle with smooth vanilla. I know the idea is to enjoy the taste at a slow pace, but I finish most of what I am given quickly.

Outside, the Icelandic sky is keeping its secrets hidden. I eyeball it through the window, hoping to spot a slither of the elusive purple, the yawning majesty of the Northern Lights. But the sky is as solid and impassive as the ocean when you're waiting to catch a fish. By 2am, there has still been no bite.

*

A heartbeat hammers the air, as distinctive as an animal call. The helicopters are coming. It is, we've been told, the only way to see the Icelandic countryside properly. Ducking beneath the blades we climb onboard.

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge - or Reykjanes Ridge as it is know in Iceland - runs along the floor of the Atlantic like a racing track from South to North, Africa to Greenland. It scores through a small number of islands, but nowhere as dramatically as Iceland. The jostling plates have crushed and stretched the island's surface into a beautiful mess of fissures and rocky outcrops.

In our helicopter we do a loop outwards, the pilot dipping the nose of the helicopter toward the seabed like a dog sniffing for seaweed. Then we soar forward, across the peaks of Iceland's volcanoes, above them then between them, great, terrible rocks on either side glistening purple and blue and green. The air feels lean as we slice through it, the earth still and imperious. The odd houses perch on mountain sides, miles from the city or even a road. We wonder how they live.

Settled back on ground, we wobble out with our shoulders hunched as a few feet away, boiling water erupts from the earth - a 10-foot spout shooting upwards then disintegrating and collapsing in a funnel. The geysers, Iceland's natural clocks, reminding the island of its bubbling underbelly.

*

On the plane home I realise: Reykjavík is easier to access from London than the North of our own country, in terms of time and money. But from there, with a little imagination, you can enter an other world, a landscape from the pages of fairy tales. It was over a thousand years ago that mankind first glanced at its strangeness and thought : 'I'll have a go at this'. I'm glad in a small way, I did the same.